As I mentioned in our last post, we've spent a lot of time over the past several months working with NGS Grantee Yazan Kopty on his archival project, Imagining the Holy. This is the first part of a conversation with Yazan about the project back in September, edited and abridged for clarity. We'll post the second half (it was a long conversation!) next week.
Yazan Kopty: Ok, so the reason why I came to National Geographic in the first place: I was and still am writing a book based on my family in Palestine and was using oral histories that I did with my family members and sort of like, our family photos. I was missing photos of public spaces and trying to get an idea of what certain festivals looked like and the public life that weren't documented in family photos. And then I started finding them in National Geographic, so I just started looking online. There's a huge collection at [the Library of Congress], the Matson Collection of pictures from Palestine, but then I was finding things from National Geographic that were really interesting. So I just started buying National Geographic on eBay. Like, I found an index that said which stories had been published and then I just started buying them on eBay. Mainly the pictures were always the most interesting, probably for a lot of people, with National Geographic that's the hook. But then the texts were interesting too because they were sort of describing places that I knew from family stories but from a very different perspective. I had never really thought critically about the magazine's coverage--I had never been exposed to the magazine's coverage of Palestine, I had always looked at National Geographic to like, think and look at the rest of the world, so it's kind of interesting to look inward and have a personal connection to a place and realize that some of the way it was covered or described isn't how I would describe it or was not how it was described to me. So I was sort of curious to know what, if there was an archive, A. what the archive looked like, and yeah, I just sort of knocked on the door. [laughs]
Julie McVey: So the stars kind of aligned there?
Renee Braden: Yeah, I think that they did. We were really excited for this project. It's just what we had been talking about. And yet they were, on the program side, they were exploring it, in like kind of big ways...But Yazan came through the door and had all the right pieces and elements of, well here's the way to test the whole idea. We've got the guy standing right in front of us! We could plan it for another year, or we could just say, ok, let's do him! And that's what we did.
Sara Manco: There was a lot of just, like, coming and looking at stuff--
SM: Before we really figured out what to do with it.
YK: And a lot of Sara being, like, "here's this picture" and being like, "oh, that's amazing, that's this thing." The little bit that I knew just from my own background or my own research was already more than what was on the caption, or more than what Sara could figure out when she's in charge of, you know, pictures of the whole entire world. [laughs]
SM: You know, just a small job.
YK: Yeah, just a small job! And so I think that that was the next part of the project, connects more closely maybe with my background in oral history. Which is, it brought me to here because of the book that I'm writing, but I think it was also the idea that you, know, one version of a story isn't really enough to have something that looks like the truth.
And so, you know, you have a magazine that publishes and authoritative story, and then you have the photographer that takes the authoritative picture and the authoritative caption, but then, a lot of the stuff I didn't agree with, or I saw slightly different ways, and I started thinking, what would other Palestinians see if they looked at this same picture? The idea of layering it with multiple voices, my first idea--it felt very reactionary. We have an original caption, let's write a new caption for 2019, that'll like, address the old caption. And then I started to realize that the old caption is part of the story of the photo. There should be multiple layers. And we're doing it now, but it'll continue living and maybe other people look at it and have their own thoughts on what's in that picture. So I've gone deep into photography, which is a field I wasn't particularly knowledgeable about. And thinking a lot about who takes the pictures and what's the subject and all these things about the moment when the photographer was standing in front of the subject and taking this picture. That's my one research interest, but then people who have joined the project have been from so many different backgrounds.
JM: That's so cool. Yeah, if you could just talk a little bit about the structure of the project and the different people who contribute and, is it a volunteer thing?
YK: I kind of designed the project in the constraints of the explorer's grant. There's definitely lessons to be learned about, when you work on a volunteer project. I think there are funds in the budget to pay people for their contributions but it's such a small amount of money, some people are just like, no, we just want to do it. Actually, most participants haven't asked for that, and then when I've mentioned that it's possible, they haven't been that interested in that.
RB: You almost probably get a better response if they want to do it to participate in the project. Then just to have a small amount.
YZ: And also because they're not being paid they're not being held accountable by that [laughs] so I'm thinking now, we've onboarded probably close to 40 people maybe? I'm also counting people who aren't directly signing onto the platform but who are being interviewed by field researchers. A lot of people have looked at the pictures and had a lot to say, but not a lot of people have sat down and done the hard boring work of typing out the captions, and sending them to me to edit, and the work that we need to have the actual, tangible, fruits of the project. There's field researchers. There are cultural heritage experts; mostly academics and people who have studied Palestinian textiles, and they're like, the two or three people that know the most about it. So they're not identifying automatically what something is, but they're connecting it to field research that they're doing now. And they're really key people that also have connected the pictures to people who wouldn't otherwise see them on Instagram or a platform. So they actually go to villages and say, “hey, does anybody know who this person is? Or you know, what's this spot? Like, I know that this is in this area, it says it's near a well, does anybody know where this is?”
The last category is like, community elders, which is probably the most important. The most important and also the most difficult to connect, with so much distance and having to rely on technology. And those are people who are bringing a lot of personal narrative. So I've tried really hard not to constrict, not to pre-script what people should say. A lot of people will ask me, can you give me an example of what type of caption you want? I've tried to push them, to say, what do you think is important about the picture? Like, don't worry about what I think is important about the picture because they're not the same thing. That's been interesting--people with a very academic background kind of look--let's go back to the textile example: this was called this, this was made here, all the facts. Where somebody else, a community elder, looked at this picture, and said, “Oh, my aunt used to wear that textile, and like, I remember her.” And it was a completely personal story that really had nothing to do with the textile except that was the trigger for that memory. And to me, that's the more magical space of what we get from community-based research. Which is what I'm trying to sort of pitch this as.
RB: And I think, potentially, in this case, it's what can save or retain a culture that's under stress or not necessarily intact today. I mean, if you took all of the pictures that you can come across, of Palestine at some point, and build them over time, it sort of recreates it in a virtual space. Every potential description, story, is another layer and another layer. You really, you can't go back a hundred years and change what happened, but you can--in some ways it's like taking something that you loved, your favorite...vase...that you dropped on the ground. And ok, you see the glue and the cracks, and you got it together so it doesn't leak, and in some way, a hundred years from now, the people left, that might be the best thing they've got to look at.
JM: I love that, because it really changes the idea of what an archive is, because for so long, an archive has been an authoritative, like Yazan said, singular kind of voice, and you silence all the rest of these voices. But what we're really trying to do here is collect--if not everyone's voice--at least enough voices that you have some idea of what was actually going on in the past writ large.
YK: Yeah. And I mean, that was a beautiful description. I mean, even--I mean, the cracks are part of the story as well. Palestine's a very politicized subject or place, it's also hard to imagine some projects that are not ostensibly political. And that don't, like, hit people's nerves. But I think that this also feels very proactive. I think the people who would be most invested in this sort of project are people who are, in large cases, indigious people whose homelands or communities have been under threat for generations. Who are in diaspora--things are broken, this continuity has been lost for some reason. Now, like Syria, people are really interested in--Syrians are really interested in cultural heritage because their cultural heritage is under threat. So it's like you don't know what you have until it's gone. And I think it feels like a very proactive step to just be able to give access to these photos to people, and let them respond to it and start a conversation. You don't--I think that's also the beauty of an archive. You don't really know what the material in it can potentially do.